Commentaries Offer Contrary Lessons
To the Editor:
Contradictions abound in education, a fact I was reminded of while reading your Oct. 21, 1998, issue. Two Commentaries facing one another in that issue delineated suggestions for American schools that seem diametrically opposed.
Michael D. Usdan's Commentary, "Is the Grass That Much Greener?," proposes that Japanese schools could learn much from our educational system. He observes that Japanese youngsters, in light of the rigid tests and standards of their system, are not likely to take risks. Mr. Usdan suggests that Japanese schools, with their highly centralized system, could learn much from the "strengths" of the American system, which he identifies as: adaptability to local conditions, openness to new ideas, fostering creativity, and a strong system of higher education.
Juxtaposed with Mr. Usdan's Commentary was Christopher T. Cross' essay, "The Standards Wars: Some Lessons Learned," which touts standards as the answer for American school reform. He writes that "standards are here to stay," and proposes that the next steps in this movement toward standardization should include the creation of performance standards, aligning assessments with standards, and restructuring professional development, budgeting, and teacher education.
The contradictions in these two viewpoints are evident when we consider them together and ponder their implications for schools. Mr. Usdan's message that there is value in local control, flexibility, and creative, critical thinking clashes with Mr. Cross' implication that schools should become more centralized, structured, and uniform.
As districts and states move toward the refinement of standards that, as Mr. Cross notes, are influenced by interest groups, business, and policymakers, are we not creating a system that is problematic in the same ways Mr. Usdan suggests the Japanese system is? Will an increasingly "standardized system" result in American students who, like their Japanese counterparts, are afraid to take risks because of the high-stakes standards and assessments they will be judged by?
Similarities among state standards, which Mr. Cross describes as precursors to a "de facto set of national standards," will lead more than likely to a loss of the "adaptability to local conditions" and "openness to new ideas" Mr. Usdan claims the Japanese envy in the American system.
We need to consider these contradictions more closely. More deliberation about the consequences standardization will hold for American schools is needed. Who will really benefit from this movement? Who will be left out? We need to address such issues before standardization becomes, as Mr. Cross proclaims, the "most important and enduring change to impact schools."
Department of Education
University of Minnesota, Morris
Discipline Problems or Disengagement?
To the Editor:
According to your article, the Educational Testing Service report "Order in the Classroom" suggests that "school discipline problems have a clear, negative impact on academic achievement" ("Discipline Problems Linked to Low Scores," Oct. 21, 1998).
That conclusion is drawn from a study conducted by the ETS in which researchers found that students who had committed minor or more serious offenses scored lower on achievement tests. But while the relationship between the two sets of data is logical, your cause-and-effect statement of the findings is not clearly supported. The more likely relationship is that disciplinary offenses and low scores on achievement tests are two results of the same problem: disengaged students.
There is substantial evidence that improving student engagement through a variety of approaches reduces classroom discipline problems and increases student learning. There is no question that students who commit minor and serious offenses in school contribute to an environment that is not supportive of learning, and that this problem needs to be addressed.
Removing the offending students through suspension or expulsion is certainly not going to raise their achievement levels. An approach that treats the problem as one of disengagement is far more likely to improve the achievement levels of all students in a school, and to reduce disciplinary infractions as well.
Ruth P. Silverberg
Sousa Elementary School
Port Washington, N.Y.
Math Standards Differ on Drills
To the Editor:
There is a small but significant error in your front-page article "Math Council Again Mulling Its Standards," Nov. 4, 1998. The California mathematics standards do not suggest repetitive drilling of problems. A key difference between the California standards and those of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is that California's standards are neutral as to teaching method, including repetitive drill.
San Diego, Calif.
Edison Takeovers: Giving Away Our Schools Admits Failure
To the Editor:
Criticism of our public school systems has been rising during the last several decades, with critics, at different times, embracing vouchers, tax credits, schools of choice, home schooling, and the alternative school. The public schools' response to this criticism has bordered on indifference. A mild protest here, a grumble there. The critics' message has been lost.
So little real internal change has taken place in public schools over the past 50 years that almost any outside proposal to improve them now seems attractive. Your revealing article on the work of Christopher Whittle and the Edison Project is a case in point ("Edison Project Spares No Cost in Wooing Prospective Clients," Oct. 14, 1998). There is widening acceptance of the concept of a private-sector takeover of public schools. To the private investor, public education represents fertile ground. Yet this loud warning shot is one too few educators are choosing to hear. Instead, we are actually offering Mr. Whittle some of our schools to run. To my mind, this represents the most telling indictment of our profession to date. It is a public confession that we don't know what to do and can't wait to unload our problems on someone else.
What are the basic features of the Edison Project? First, there will be a longer school day and a longer school year. For those who delight in the coercive, this will be attractive. For others, the question of how the added time will be employed to increase the creativity and productivity of what schools already are providing will loom large. We don't need to approve of what the schools are doing now with time to know that simply adding more of it is a shallow venture. How seriously has the Edison Project been challenged to thoroughly validate what it intends to do?
A second attraction of this for-profit venture is the lure of putting a computer in every home. If computers are the answer, then why haven't existing school systems acted more assertively on that concept? It is a costly enterprise, to be sure, but one offering attractive benefits.
A private takeover of public schools also offers the appealing lure of reviewing the performance of existing teaching staffs with an eye toward eliminating the unproductive. Some in the public sector may find this attractive, especially since many administrators have failed to muster sufficient integrity to do it. Many schools have hired poorly, getting a body to fill a classroom, rather than adhering to high-quality professional standards. In the process, they have sold out to mediocrity for the sake of expediency.
Our knowledge base on how students learn, how schools should be organized, and how professional staffs perform at their best is filled with insights that few schools are willing to embrace with consistency and integrity. No secret cache of knowledge is available to these private-sector developers. Perhaps they intend to package some aspects of current practice differently, making cosmetic adjustments seem significant. But the bottom line is that they know nothing whatever more than we in the public schools know. Maybe what will give them an edge is their willingness to act on it.
If I were a parent in one of these "giveaway" districts, I would be alarmed that the people charged with leading our public schools not only did not know how to point us toward new capacities, but weren't even interested in the challenge.
The larger issue in the Edison Project takeovers is one of incapacity revealed. We have not risen up and confronted our failings. Giving away our schools is indeed a failure.
John R. Champlin
Institute for Quality Learning
Vol. 18, Issue 12, Page 33